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COVID-19: The Ongoing Impact on Religious Communities

January 19, 2022 by Sr. Nancy Conway, CSJ

Little did we know in the summer of 2020, when we collaborated with Sister Lynn M. Levo, CSJ, Ph.D to offer the webinar “COVID-19: The Impact of Isolation and Confinement on Religious Communities”, that in 2022 we would still be dealing with many of the issues addressed in this webinar.

Because the content of this webinar is largely still relevant, highlighted here are some of the insights Lynn, as a psychologist, shared. We hope this might lead those of you who attended this webinar to dust off any notes you took! For those who were not able to attend, hopefully you will find its highlights helpful. Following this summary, we encourage you to view the webinar in its entirety here.

What are we experiencing?
A major focus of Lynn’s presentation was the virus’ impact on the mental health status of everyone in our world, but in particular within religious congregations. She also noted the special challenges this pandemic presented for those with pre-existing mental health issues and/or dementia.

Lynn addressed the anxiety caused in part by the uncertainty that initially surrounded the virus, and which to some degree, continues today. In 2020, information was continually evolving, and in some cases, conflicting. What remains however is a persistent feeling of being at risk—especially for our elders.

The pandemic caused almost every aspect of life to change. For those who live in motherhouses or other congregate living situations, these changes involved a profound experience of loss. Foremost among them has been the deaths of community members from COVID-19 and the impact on communal grieving and rituals.

But it is also important to acknowledge other kinds of losses that were highlighted—the loss of familiar structures, for example, the routine of daily Mass and socializing in community rooms. Perhaps the most difficult and long-term loss was in-person connections to those community members not living at motherhouses, as well as the inability to visit with friends and family members.

Lynn pointed out that in addition to these losses and the anxiety resulting from so much uncertainty, the confinement required to keep them safe compounded the feeling of loneliness, which research shows is more prevalent among older persons. Research done with residents of nursing homes during the pandemic also identified cognitive decline, increased dementia, and worsening of certain physical conditions—including diabetes—during this period of isolation.

Do any of these insights from Lynn in 2020 describe today’s reality? Sadly, many of the issues that she addressed in her 2020 webinar remain. Uncertainty and the anxiety it can evoke are still operative.

While some restrictions have been lifted with the advent of vaccines, the mutation of the virus into different variants and the lack of clear data about the ongoing effectiveness of the vaccines against new variants continues the general sense of uncertainty. As a result, precautions remain or have been reinstated—often involving some degree of confinement or restriction.

Message to those in Leadership Roles
It seems that Lynn’s suggestions to leaders might be as relevant today as it was when she presented her webinar in July of 2020. Here are some highlights from that part of the webinar:

Lynn noted how challenging it is to be in leadership during a time of crisis. The unique challenges of leading during this pandemic include keeping the community safe and the members informed, looking for ways to “re-start” daily life, dealing with staffing issues, and finally, dealing with the secondary effects of isolation and confinement described earlier in the webinar.

Perhaps you are now experiencing what was suggested; that “Life is not going to go back to what it was”. If that’s the case, how might what we heard in the summer of 2020 help you in your leadership role today? Here are just a few of her suggestions.

By now you have probably learned that clear, trustworthy communication is the most essential element to which leaders needed to attend. Lynn described the qualities of this communication as transparent, honest, and delivered empathically. She spoke of being wise in choosing how much information to share and when to share it. Learning how to deliver bad news has probably remained a challenge for leaders during these many months of shifting information on how to deal with the pandemic.

Remember that the anxiety caused by uncertainty during this pandemic is not inappropriate or unusual to experience. It is important for leaders not to minimize anxiety but to learn to listen to each person’s experience, acknowledge it as this person’s emotional reality, and find ways to offer reassurance in the midst of all of this ambiguity.

During the pandemic, leaders did not and still do not have all the answers. Saying “I’m not sure” is an honest response, but might be difficult for some leaders to admit. Not “armoring up,” Brene Brown (research professor, lecturer, author, and podcast host) cautions against the need to have all the answers and/or not asking for help. This continues to be a time to seek help from professionals who can assist leaders decide how to address unhealthy responses among their members. Colleagues or peers are also a possible source for resources they have found supportive and useful during these many months.

Perhaps at this point in the pandemic, leaders are able to take up Lynn’s final challenge—to invite members, especially elders who have been through so much during the pandemic, to consciously identify the elements of the “new normal”. Lynn believes the new normal has to shift away from focusing on what has been lost to noticing what has been found—namely a deeper sense of what matters most, of how we have found God in the midst of all of this turmoil, and how religious communities have found ways to deepen their connections to one another and our suffering world.

Sr. Nancy Conway, CSJ is a facilities & engagement specialist with Hoffman. Sr. Nancy has 28 years of experience in organizational consulting/facilitation. Sr. Nancy was elected President of the newly formed Congregation of St. Joseph (the union formed in 2007 by the coming together of seven independent CSSJ congregations). She served in that capacity for 12 years, and while in that role, she facilitated the congregation's movement regarding its buildings and properties across six states. 

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